How the 2000s changed tactics #8: Pace

January 22, 2010

There isn’t a great deal to say about this one – it pretty much does what it says on the tin. In the past ten years, pace has become arguably the most important quality for young footballers.

The reason for this probably lies in the increasing tendency for teams to play on the counter-attack. The idea of the counter-attack is not a new invention – as long ago as Herbert Chapman-era Arsenal in the 1930s, there was a belief that teams could attack for too long, and there was value in drawing the opposition onto you, in order to open up space for your forwards to exploit. But the nature of modern football – more technically gifted players, pristine pitches perfect for passing on, and defenders less able to escape bookings for cynical fouls – has meant that counter-attacking has become a major feature of almost every top club in Europe, and pace obviously plays a key role in this.

The Arsenal side of seventy years later offers a good comparison. Theo Walcott versus Sebastian Larsson. Who is the better player on the ball? Walcott is a good dribbler; Larsson is more able to pick out an intelligent pass. But because Theo Walcott can sprint 100m in eleven seconds, and Larsson is quite sluggish (by Premiership standards), Walcott has been given four seasons’ worth of opportunities to impressin the Arsenal first team, whilst Larsson was discarded after only three league appearances, with an Arsenal coach hinting at the time that Larsson’s lack of pace made him incompatible with Arsenal’s system.

Take away the issue of pace, and there’s not that much difference in ability between the two. Indeed, it could be said that Walcott relies on his pace as much as any Premiership footballer today – Pete Gill at Football365 (perhaps slightly harshly) commented in the wake of Arsenal’s 0-3 defeat to Chelsea, ‘It’s just incredible that a football player of Theo Walcott’s stature has so little football talent. But for his pace he wouldn’t be a professional player. He has nothing else.’ Walcott’s own father puts it more politely, saying that ‘pace has been his killer edge over others’.

But of course, you can’t take away the issue of pace, which is why Larsson is now at a mid-table club, and Walcott remains challenging at the top of the league.

Would the goals below have been scored had the attacking players involved not been blessed with considerable speed?

Quick quiz question on a related note. At the start of the 2003/04 season, Arsenal performed standard physical tests on each of their footballers. One of them involved how quickly each player could sprint over a distance of sixty metres. In first place was Thierry Henry, second was Jermaine Pennant. But who was the third quickest? Ten options: Dennis Bergkamp, Gael Clichy, Ashley Cole, Edu, Gilberto Silva, Lauren, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord. Answer after the videos.

And the answer is……..astoundingly, Dennis Bergkamp.

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